Europe, save Ukraine

The second decade of the 21st century has come to be embodied by an increase in global tensions and uncertainty regarding the future. The problem is particularly acute in Europe and its immediate surroundings. The EU faces a wide range of challenges aggravated by the flow of migrants from the conflict-ridden Middle East and North Africa.

The result of the Brexit referendum in the middle of this year has threatened the very foundations of the European integration project. The European Union’s southern states are continuing to haemorrhage from the economic crisis. France and the Benelux countries have been hit by a wave of terrorism – but nowadays all countries in Europe are scared.

All of these problems combined have created political and social instability on the continent, bringing with it: a rise in isolationist and populist sentiment as well as a radicalization of public opinion. These are the most visible effects of Europe’s identity and institutional crisis. This is no surprise as the sub-standard defence of the EU and its member states has led to a bigger role for the masses, which increasingly buy into the words of tricksters who promise miraculous solutions.

Listing all these problems reminds us how little attention is paid to Ukraine within European politics. After all, the destabilization of the Eastern Neighbourhood plays a significant role in causing the turbulence hitting Europe, including the anti-Russian sanctions and the political confrontation with Moscow.

Although there was no direct template, this scenario was accurately predicted already one year ago by the Ukrainian analytical group Resistance Information, which considered it to be one of the biggest threats to the pro-Western transformation of this country. This sad realization is accompanied by a conviction that Russia would have to be governed by idiots in order not to exploit Europe’s problems. In other words, Putin’s window of opportunity in Ukraine is currently wide open as the EU is drowning in its own problems. The United States is preoccupied with its presidential election campaign, which will keep Washington distracted until December and the new administration wont start functioning until the spring of 2017 at the earliest. Even then, Kiev cannot be sure of continued support if Donald Trump becomes the next president of the United States.

Therefore, the Kremlin has a free hand when its comes to Ukraine, which could translate into a sense of impunity, in particular when it comes to using up the West’s alternatives to respond, such as sanctions, non-military methods. The key question is: will Russia use the opportunity to try to consolidate the Ukraine problem in its favour? And it can do so in a very easy manner. The rise of military escalations, including tensions in the Crimea and Donbas, could activate two scenarios that would be difficult for Ukraine to reverse – and both would push Kiev off its path of democratic transformation.

This has been the motivation behind Moscow’s hybrid warfare from the very start and despite various methods used it remains unchanged. On the other hand, it is difficult to shake off the belief that a Russian operation will merely be a form of trigger mechanism. The chain of events that will destroy the hopes embodied in Maidan will be activated by Ukraine itself, therefore one can boldly say that the countdown to a potential disaster in the region has already begun.

Unravelling of Ukraine

Unfortunately, this is not pessimistic blabbering. Local media warn that Ukraine is ceasing to function as a state. In a very fast manner, it is losing its sovereign functions of law and institutions. In short, the Kiev leadership is losing control over parts of the country. Ukrainian political experts agree, pointing to a fragmentation of the country.

Travelling from the West, in the regions of Rivne, Lutsk, Ternopil and Zhytomyr, one can see that power has been assumed by a criminal alliance formed between local authorities and criminal gangs, organized by the so-called Amber Republic. The main focus here is the large-scale and illegal mining of amber resources. These activities are turning this part of Ukraine into an ecological desert, creating a zone of lawlessness. The main force behind this process is the Lviv mafia, because this area lives off cross-border smuggling. Similar activities take place in the southern region of Uzhhorod and Chernivtsi which are under the control of cigarette smugglers, led by Viktor Baloga, a local oligarch and member of parliament.

It is now time to turn our focus on the regions of Odessa, the Mykolaiv Oblast and Kherson which, upon the loss of the Crimea, have become Ukraine’s maritime window to the world. They are the driving force behind agricultural production, which as a result of the crash of heavy industry produces the main export income for the state. The problem however lies in the power of the local oligarchs as well as anti-Kiev, but not necessarily pro-Russian, sentiment. These are aimed at the elites who came to power as a result of the Maidan revolution.

In 2014 the Kiev powerbase was controlled by politicians coming from Galicia, with natives of Lviv at the helm. Ukrainian Galicians present a distinctive form of nationalism and promote their own worldview based on the political history of the state, with control over the most important institutions in this field, that is the Ukrainian equivalent of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance and Ministry of Education. They have strong party and parliamentary representation.

This is a top-down attempt to build a new Ukrainian society, based on its anti-Soviet past. The problem lies in the fact that Galicians constitute merely 20 per cent of Ukraine’s population and the rest of the country to various degrees does not subscribe to their views, in particular their anti-Russian stance. Another problem is that the identical breakdown of support can be found when it comes to language and political stance within the army, which makes it very difficult to forge a sense of unity.

Moreover, the southern region, known as the modern “Wild Fields” are yet another area of lawlessness where the narcotics trade has taken root. However, just as in other areas, power over regional state institutions such as the courts, justice system and police is held by the oligarchs. A point in case in the Dniepropietrovsk Oblast, which in fact is governed by Igor Kolomoyski.

Then there are other regions – Zaporojia, Kirovohrad, Kharkiv and Poltava – which until the conflict with Russia were the industrial heart of the country. Today, it is a region mired in economic depression – due to the economic crisis and measures taken by the country’s leadership, in particular under the presidency of Victor Janukovych, and the Russian embargo. It is therefore socially and politically unstable, due to the massive unemployment and the rising crime rate. As a result, what used to be the engine of Ukraine’s economy has joined the ranks of the Sumy and Chernihiv regions in becoming one of the most backward parts of the country.

It is not even worth mentioning the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts, the coal mining centres of Ukraine, due to the ongoing war with Russia. The question therefore remains, who does the president, council of ministers and parliament actually govern? It appears only the Kiev region and the capital itself as well as the Vinnytsia region, the oligarchic cradle of Petro Poroshenko and the current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.

When it comes to the parliament, each oblast has members of parliament representing it with their own business interests. They tolerate the president and the government because they don’t see a better guarantor of their untouchability, however when eventually administrative and economic reforms start to threaten the interests of the corrupt elites then it is likely that they will turn against Kiev. They already have a card up their sleeves, as a possible blackmail tool. There have already been calls for Odessa to become a free trade zone. Security services are monitoring supporters of a Republic of Bessarabia and members of parliament in Zaporozhye are dreaming of autonomy.

Does this all not smack of the Kremlin’s blueprint for a federalized Ukraine? The only difference being that these plans don’t include Russia. All it takes is for the central government to be weakened even further, for example through Russia’s military escalatation, and local oligarchs could shift their support to a stronger guarantor, putting into motion a territorial domino effect. Unless an external player, that is Russia, is counting on the reverse effect.

Strong hand

The economic situation in Ukraine is not good. One and a half million refugees escaping the conflict, unemployment, a fall in real income, substantial rises in communal and energy costs. All these factors are emptying out the pockets of every citizen. They are starting to believe that society is deliberately being made to carry the costs of the crisis. What is even worse, however, is the lack of visible changes in the improvement of living standards. For example, reforms of the corrupt justice system, holding oligarchs to account or reforms of the police force and tax system.

These are fundamental expectations which would give provide sense and purpose – but which are yet to be delivered. Meanwhile, despite countless promises, the reform process is stagnating, creating ever greater disappointment. The authority of the president and the elites who came to power in 2014 is continuing to drop. Opinion polls show that support for the governing party has fallen to the 2-10% mark. And it could be no other way as last year President Poroshenko announced a strategy focused on 60 fundamental reforms. Only four have been initiated and the president is fighting with parliament which, as in the past, is dominated by oligarchs.

That said, the latter are also not happy, because they are seeing their fortunes diminish. Europe is not interested in outdated machinery, and Russia is deliberately not buying them. A similarly bleak situation is evident within foreign policy, because the era of unconditional support for Ukraine has come to an end due to the failure to effectively implement reforms. An expression of this weakening Western support is the IMF’s delay in providing Ukraine with its latest aid tranche – there is a limit to how long one can cosy up with European partners in the media spotlight without delivering any results.

Ukraine has not received full implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU, visa-free travel, Western military aid – nothing that could stop the growing wave of dissatisfaction. In short, Ukraine is disappointed that the EU and the United States have not become more engaged. Somehow Ukrainian society has not undergone the realization that it is Ukraine itself that needs to push through these changes.

Due to these considerations, an increasingly large pool of Ukrainian experts is convinced that a change of elites will be necessary. But not in the form of a third Maidan, because Ukrainians are too busy keeping their heads above water. In the course of two to three years, if Ukraine does not fall apart by then, the need for a strong hand to take on the governing elite will increase substantially. New setbacks in the war against Russia might accelerate this process. For now, there is no leader in sight who could live up to expectations, but there are plenty of problems to be solved.

A suitable candidate will need to forcefully conquer parliament and limit civil liberties, which attract criticism from the EU and the United States, pushing Ukraine closer to Russia and maybe even China. As is widely known, neither Moscow nor Beijing do not ask their allies about the state of their democracy. In the case of a strong Ukrainian government, this stance by the Kremlin is very likely given that an authoritarian leader will not, in all certainty, come from Galician circles. Moreover, Western Ukraine’s historical ethos will most likely be strongly opposed. What implications would these two scenarios have on Europe and Poland?

Prepare for the worst

The West loses Ukraine. This is a result of both the EU’s and American problems but above all due to Ukraine’s inability to change. Unless both factors are rectified, Ukraine could face complete chaos and territorial disintegration – or a return to Russia’s sphere of influence. An even worse outcome would be if Moscow leads to the collapse of Ukraine in order for the West to carry the burden of the aftermath.

There are various solutions, including ones that verge on complete heresy, such as a pact between Europe and Russia on Ukraine. However, the use of Ukraine as a bargaining chip is not only unethical it would also be deeply damaging for the EU and United States. Therefore, there is only one way forward: creating and implementing a rescue plan for Kiev. This Euro-American unconditional blueprint for Ukraine might even have to go against the will of the oligarchs and the current political elite, who apparently unable to save the sovereignty of their country. This would involve taking responsibility for the future of Ukraine, in direct opposition to Russia and having to carry a very high financial burden. Is the West ready to assume this responsibility?

At stake here are the consequences of neglect, such as the collapse of a state with a population of 40 million people, with four nuclear reactors and at risk of a bloody civil war. Added to this would be the huge wave of refugees, a rise in organized crime and the uncontrolled flow of weapons and narcotics.

This is where Polish doubts emerge. How to react in the event that one of these negative scenarios for Ukraine actually takes place? First, one should put wishful thinking aside looks at the situation from a realist perspective, with the knowledge that these events might actually take place. Secondly, we should take into account our limited economic and military potential, as well as internationally. For example, constructing a thesis that Ukraine is a problem beyond Poland’s capabilities, but with huge and direct effects for the immediate neighbourhood.

The first thing that comes to mind is to voice loud support for the EU and the United States not to leave Ukraine alone. This would mean the activation and acceleration of Polish foreign policy in providing organized assistance to Ukraine, its civil society and not necessarily its political elite, which is losing the impetus for political action. The second factor should be a very consistent co-operation between the United States and Europe.

Thirdly, one should put aside Polish-Ukrainian historical disputes, because now is not the time for confrontation in this area. Let me explain why: if Ukraine collapses then a side-effect could be the sharp rise in nationalist sentiment, characterized by the search for external scapegoats. Already at this point in time, Ukrainian Galician patriotism stands in direct opposition to our historical and territorial consciousness.

On the other hand, judging by the very heated Internet discussions on Ukraine, Poland – as the source of the democratic virus – does not enjoy favourable press coverage in publications sympathetic to Russia. There is also a substantial group which favours a third way for Ukraine in the form of a caricature of the Russian World, replicated in a very limited Ukrainian edition. These imperial isolations also see Poland as the enemy.

In short, Poland is unfortunately not seen in a good light by anyone in Ukraine. To make matters worse, Ukrainian anti-Polonism is different to the strain seen in Russia. Moscow’s anti-Polish sentiment is more sophisticated in nature, motived by political factors and therefore willing to entertain the idea of a Slavic embrace, should geopolitical considerations dictate that this is necessary. Unfortunately, Ukrainian sentiment towards Poles contains deep rooted envy and long-standing complexes. And this is a much more dangerous phenomenon, because it is very emotional and therefore irrational and highly morbid.

Robert Cheda

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